Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Forget Municipal Schools! The Future for Shelby County's Suburbs May be — Huh? —a Special School District

The specter which caused the 2010 charter surrender of MCS gets little more than shrugs now.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 6:38 PM

State Senator Mark Norris
  • JB
  • State Senator Mark Norris
Mark Norris was flabbergasted, too.

“You mean they no longer want to tar and feather me!” he said in the aftermath of Tuesday night’s meeting of the Shelby County Unified School Board in Memphis — in the aftermath, really, of almost two and a half years of unrest over city/county school merger, during which Norris figured in many Memphis educational circles as an arch-villain.

The influential Republican state Senator from east Shelby County, who serves as majority leader in his chamber, is after all the bringer of most of the suburban-friendly education bills that have antagonized opponents of independent school districts in the Memphis suburbs since late 2010, when it seemed likely that legislative elections results that year would make it possible for the old Shelby County Schools system to achieve special-school-district status.

It was that threat which generated a sense of panic on the then Memphis City Schools board — so much of one that a majority of MCS members would vote to surrender their charter, thereby starting the long and contentious process which has generated suits and counter-suits and federal court orders and continuing efforts by six suburban municipalities to secede from the soon-to-be unified school district and form municipal school districts for themselves.

And what prompted Norris’ mock exclamation on Wednesday was the realization, which will surely soon be dawning on everybody else, that one of the bills he has introduced in the current session, SB1355 —which, in the words of its defining caption, “lifts prohibition on creation of new special school districts” — has encountered no opposition to speak of, and was in effect given a pass Tuesday night by the divided but Memphis-dominated Unified school board, which had voted to oppose three other bills by Norris, specifically including one, SB1353, that is the senator’s latest attempt to get authorization for municipal school bills in the suburbs.

And now it seemed that SB355, a bill that would lift the statewide ban on special school districts, the very kind of bill which was deemed such a threat in late 2010 as to cause the MCS charter surrender, was looked at as something harmless.

“I’m amazed,” said Norris. “Is it possible that the $78 million [an annual “maintenance-of-effort” sum, payable to MCS, which the courts saddled the City of Memphis with] was the only thing all of that was about?”

Funding questions were, in fact, at the heart of city concerns in 2010, and they were not limited to the matter of the M.O.E. The fear of many in the MCS orbit was that a bill lifting a 1982-vintage ban on new special school districts statewide would, by enabling any new districts with taxing authority,end up eroding the funding base available to MCS from the county’s general education fund.

Whether well-founded or not, that was one of the major concerns expressed by advocates of charter surrender.

So what’s different about special-district legislation in 2013? The fact of merger, in many ways a de facto reality already (there is, under court order, a common board, after all) and destined to become, as of July 1, totally official.

As one legislator, an earnest advocate of charter surrender in 2010, explained it in Nashville on Wednesday, should the county suburbs press for a special district now and succeed in that aim, they would be splitting off from an existing all-county unit and, taxing authority or no taxing authority, would continue to be fully financially liable to that county unit.

In 2010, as we would all subsequently learn, Memphis City Schools was a special school district, SCS was the official county unit, and it was MCS that was paying a separate city levy, along with its contributions to the county general fund. Should the old SCS re-constitute itself as a new special school district under newly enacted legislation — SB1355, say — those roles would be reversed. (In one of the crowning ironies, the de facto Memphis system would be the county system and, as such, entitled to full pro rata education funding from the suburbs.)

The same fiscal logic would be in play, of course, should SB1353, with its enabling of new municipal school districts, pass. But, for all the charm that the municipal route might have for one or two of the suburbs — Germantown and Collierville, say — the easiest route for the old SCS jurisdictions as a whole would be to continue in their former guise, which, as of now, is still their administrative framework.

Contemplating the logic of all this, Norris confessed that he was, by virtue of being caught by surprise, nowhere near to having a legislative head count on the prospects for passage of SB1355. Up until now, he has been focusing his efforts on the municipal schools bill, SB1353. For him, SB 1355 has been a fall-back, a throw-in to the rest of his education package, or, as he put it, part of a “catch-all.”

It could well be that both he and the representatives of the suburbs he has so faithfully striven for will still concentrate on the municipal-schools bill. But Norris made a point of noting that 2011’s Norris-Todd Act (or, as he calls it, Public Chapter One) was worded so as to lift the ban on both kinds of new districts, municipal or special, at least in Shelby County.

It was the county-specific aspects of his 2012 follow-up fast-track legislation that forced U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays to declare that bill unconstitutional. And, like Norris-Todd itself, it was drawn that way to placate potential objections from friendly but dubious legislators statewide.

Will these same legislators be willing to consider a statewide lifting of the ban on special school districts this year? That remains to be seen, as it remains to be seen whether a majority of legislators elsewhere would favor the enabling of new municipal districts.

But the Tennessee School Boards Association is leery of municipal districts and supportive of special districts. CLASS (the Coalition of Large Area School Systems) is resistant to municipal districts but benevolently neutral toward new special districts. And now, it would seem, the Memphis and Shelby County Unified Board can be added to that indulgent list.

As they say, watch this space.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mays MovesToward Special Master in Effort to Break School Logjam

Meanwhile, Commission debates lawsuit, and all eyes turn to Nashville.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 9:02 AM

After regular business had finished Monday’s public meeting of the Shelby County Commission, chairman Mike Ritz made this add-on announcement concerning a status conference held earlier that morning between U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays and attorneys in the still ongoing litigation relating to city/county school merger and the prospect of independent municipal school districts:

“ I did visit with the attorneys in the Courthouse this morning, and the circumstances were these: A new party to the lawsuit was asked to attend the meeting. The County School Board was not a party to the lawsuit, but they were asked to be there.

“And what happened was that the judge said he was going to postpone his decision on the two remaining issues and asked for a special master to be appointed, with names to be submitted no later than Wednesday to overlook the activities of the School Board, because he is not happy with the failure of the School Board to appoint a superintendent, to take budget actions, and otherwise respond to the recommendations of the TPC [Transition Planning Commission]— which he feels in toto is a failure to conform according to his order of 2011.

Ritz added, “There is nothing for us to do or not do. We don’t have to like it or not like it, but there we are.”

Earlier Tom Cates and Allan Wade, attorneys for the suburban municipalities and the Memphis City Council, respectively, had in separate meetings with reporters, said essentially the same thing and with the same matter-of-factness as would Ritz.

Municipal attorney Cates: We always knew....
  • JB
  • Municipal attorney Cates: "We always knew...."
“We all knew” that the municipalities would be in the Unified District for at least a year, said Cates, in what may have been his frankest acknowledgement yet of that particular reality mandated by Judge Mays in separate orders of 2011 and 2012. And that, both he and Wade said, was all that was discussed.

Judge Mays’ announcement of his imminent intent to appoint a Special Master resolves a matter that has been hanging since his original order of 2011, which mentioned such an office, and its most obvious intent is to dispose of the remaining financial and organization obstacles to school consolidation in the face of an approaching July 1 merger deadline.

But, while it is generally being treated as a de facto delay in ruling on remaining legal issues, pending whatever the General Assembly does on school matters in the current session, it takes those issues, including the final provision of the 2011 Norris-Todd Act and the very feasibility of independent municipal schools, to the brink of final judgment.

Hence a largely rhetorical discussion in Monday’s commission meeting on a resolution by Wyatt Bunker, Terry Roland, and Chris Thomas, all proponents of municipal schools, to remove the Commission as a litigating party and, in effect, terminate the lawsuit.

Bunker rolled it all into a single ball, beginning with a conclusion he said he reached as a member of the old Shelby County Schools board a decade ago. “We knew back then that city schools were top-heavy. There’s a lot of waste, a lot of waste in that administration,” and bringing things to the present, which included last weekend’s retreat bringing together Commission members, Unified School Board members, and other county officials. A major point of concern at the retreat had been the Board’s request for extra funding.

“We get to that retreat this weekend, they hand us a $145 million-dollar bill…That made me quite angry, because it appeared to me that they were trying to avoid making the tough decisions that they need to make and instead just hand us a bill….That’s why the municipalities don’t want to have anything to do with it…That begs the question, why are we tying them up in a lawsuit? They need to seat their board. They need to hire a superintendent. They need to obtain the capital improvements to support their school system, put in place everything that’s necessary….Why don’t we get out of the way and let them get on about the business of educating children?

“And for those of you who believe this is a race issue? By definition, Shelby County Schools is more diverse than Memphis City Schools is. It’s not a race issue. It’s a very diverse school system. It’s a high-achieving school system….You ought to vote with us, get out of the way and let them make progress.”

Roland: Nashville will act.
  • JB
  • Roland: Nashville will act.
That, a fairly complete statement of the suburbs’ case, was answered this way by Commissioner Walter Bailey, who turned the argument around:

“It takes two people to do a fox trot….If you don’t have an adversary, you don’t have a lawsuit. We’re asking them to concede the remaining issues, and the lawsuit will vanish. {We could} ask the court to enter the appropriate order. That would terminate the lawsuit. That would save hundreds of thousands of dollars…..That’s a quick remedy to end this lawsuit.

And Commissioner Steve Mulroy segued from that into a reminder of the recently terminated mediation talks between the contending parties: “They’re saying it’s unreasonable to ask for a unilateral disarmament for their side. By the same token, it’s unreasonable to ask for a unilateral disarmament for our side….The question is, why won’t we talk and work out a settlement? ….A mere three or four weeks ago, we were 90 percent of the way toward a complete local and comprehensive settlement….

“Abruptly, at the 11th hour, they walked away from the negotiations. And why? Because they had some sort of inkling that our Nashville overlords would meddle once again in our local affairs and give them everything they want.”

But, said Mulroy, “there is a chance they won’t get every single thing they want out of Nashville. If we settle the lawsuit now, they won’t have to go to Nashville.”

The reported terms of what Mulroy referred to as an aborted agreement were essentially these: 10-year agreements between the suburbs and the Commission permitting chartered school districts in six suburban municipalities; guarantees of racial diversity in the suburban schools; paid-lease agreements between the suburbs and the Unified School Board for existing school properties; and, in what seems to have been the sticking point, an agreement by the suburbs to equalize per-pupil spending with that of the Unified system and to commit municipal sales-tax revenues to that end.

In debate Monday, Roland would respond, “Don’t say, you ran away,’ when you pushed [us] away,” and he predicted that the General Assembly could make the local dispute moot by enacting legislation that would both enable municipal schools and allow direct state funding of them, bypassing the County Commission’s approval process.

Indeed, there are several measures tumbling around in Nashville at the moment, one or two that would legalize new municipal school districts, this time on a statewide basis, and others that would enlarge the state’s charter-school apparatus and create the kind of state control Roland spoke of. As reported by the Flyer last week, those measures have drawn opposition from representatives of the state’s Big Four school districts —- Shelby, Davidson, Knox, and Hamilton counties -— and reaction to them appears not to be predictably partisan.

Things remain to be seen up there, as, in fact, they do in Shelby County as well.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Nashville Speaks Again on Memphis' Confederate Parks

Scene pundit suggests different name changes: e.g., "Ashamed to Have Been Part of the Confederacy" Park

Posted By on Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 1:05 PM

The fuss about Forrest Park et al. continues to get noticed in Nashville, even after state Rep.Steve McDaniel (R-Parker’s Crossroads) allowed as how his bill, designated the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013 and designed to prevent name changes, won’t apply retroactively to three newly renamed downtown Memphis parks.

The Nashville Scene is insisting that, as the headline of an article by their Bruce Barry says, “Hey Memphis, You're Doing This Parks Thing Wrong.”

Barry suggests that there was a flaw in the city's effort to satisfy every point of view in our local controversy, which saw the Memphis City Council rename Forrest Park as “Health Sciences Park,” Confederate Park as “Memphis Park,” and Jefferson Davis Park as “Mississippi River Park.

Instead of being so determined to eradicate references to Confederate history, he argues, the Council could have kept those references to the city’s 19th Century past while simultaneously pleasing all those 21st Century types who deplore everything about the defunct Confederacy.

How? Barry suggests that the Council could have done it through the simple expedient of some all-things-to-all-people names. To wit: : "Racist Nathan Bedford Forrest Park." "Blow Me Jefferson Davis Park." "Ashamed to Have Been Part of the Confederacy Park."

Now that the Council has named an official commission to renew this month’s name changes, do these names really belong in the conversation? Or would you folks prefer that the Council churn up some new names for those buttinsky/helpful (pick one) folks in Nashville? Whaddya think?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

“Retreat,” Hell! Contending Parties on School Funding Meet, Clash, Dig In

Shelby County Commission and Unified Board members trade numbers and talking points, fail to agree.

Posted By on Sun, Feb 24, 2013 at 9:46 AM

Representatives of the several branches of Shelby County government gathered Saturday for a “retreat” at the cavernous Memphis City Schools Nutrition Center on Jackson Avenue — the point being for the various parties to understand each other and, if possible, to bridge the gap on the financial shortfall facing the Shelby County Unified School Board.

Understand each other they did. Bridge the gap? Not a chance. Not just yet.

After listening to various county and school officials dissertate on such recondite matters as property assessment, methods of calculating tax rates, and the timetable of budgeting for Shelby County, various members of the Unified School Board and the County Commission traded perspectives on the current crisis, which has the Board asking the Commission for an additional $145 million in funding to pay for the 2013-14 school year.

Several members of the Commission — Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker, and Heidi Shafer — told the Board members bluntly that the chances of the Commission allocating that much money were nil.

Thomas, who served several years on the old Memphis City School board more than a decade ago, said that, at most, $45 million might be made available, but that the votes on the Commission simply weren’t there to go any higher.


Board member Jeff Warren, a holdover from the MCS side, attempted to explain why school closing, a remedy suggested by the resisting Commission members, might not be so simple a matter as they made out, insisting that cultural and neighborhood factors loomed large in such a decision.

Bunker in particular bore down on the matter, maintaining that the Board seemed to be evading hard choices of the sort that the Commission itself routinely faced and dealt with and told Warren that the Board should not conduct itself like an ‘employment agency.”

More of the same came from Shafer:

County Mayor Mark Luttrell, noting the discordant views and making the case for himself as a conciliator, talked about the impasse as one involving “two school systems” and “two values systems,” and argued that there had to be give-and-take on both sides.

Another commissioner, Steve Mulroy, a Democrat and a liberal who normally takes a different approach then the conservative Republican commissioners who had preceded him, reinforced their skepticism over school closing.

Supporting remarks made previously by Board member Martavius Jones, who had been on the former MCS board members pushing for school merger, Mulroy argued that the threatened fiscal shortfall was not primarily due to the merger. And he introduced a new issue, that of rumored legislation in Nashville regarding the potential transfer of school facilities to breakaway municipal school districts.

And, finally, Commissioner Steve Basar, chairman of the commission’s economic development committee, tried — as Luttrell had done — to square the circle and urged the Board to meet the objections of commissioners halfway by delaying certain cost-incurring measures and taking a step at a time, not trying to do everything "at Day One," in an effort to hold down budget.

In one sense, Saturday’s affair was a true meeting of minds. So far the possessors of those minds do not yet agree. But at least a dialogue had begun. Sometime before the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, which is also the formal date set for final consolidation of city and county school systems, it will have to conclude.

Friday, February 22, 2013

State’s Big Four School Districts Frown on Bills for Munis, Charter Authorizer, Vouchers

CLASS meeting in Nashville reviews some 200 bills about to see action in General Assembly.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 at 11:40 AM

NASHVILLE — On the eve of a weekend retreat for the Shelby County Commission at which school matters will loom large and a Monday status conference on school litigation called by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays, several pieces of legislation directly affecting the school impasse were hanging fire in the Tennessee General Assembly.

On Tuesday night in Nashville, members of the Shelby County Unified School Board held a reception for legislators at the downtown Sheraton. This was in conjunction with a meeting in Nashville of the Tennessee School Boards Association.

Unified Board member Mary Anne Gibson with state Senators Mark Norris and Jim Kyle at Board reception in Nashville
  • JB
  • Unified Board member Mary Anne Gibson with state Senators Mark Norris and Jim Kyle at Board reception in Nashville

And on Wednesday, some key bills of direct import to Memphis and Shelby County drew special attention at a luncheon meeting of the Coalition of Large Area School Systems (CLASS), which consists of school board members from Shelby, Davidson, Hamilton, and Knox counties.

Meeting in the downtown Sheraton, CLASS members reviewed some 200 pieces of proposed and pending legislation affecting public-school education. Several bills drew particular — and negative — attention : notably SB196/HB 190 (Norris/McCormick), the administration bill creating private school vouchers; SB830/HB702 (Gresham/White), making the state Board of Education a direct-channel authorizer for new charter schools in Shelby and Davidson counties; and SB1353/HB1298 (Norris/Todd), authorizing local referenda for the creation of new municipal school systems.

Opposition of CLASS members to the voucher and charter bills was clear and in conformity to the stated position of the parent TSBA, which was meeting in Nashville. Sentiment was also vocal against the municipal schools bill, with board members from all four participating jurisdictions stating objections.

First came a motion by Unified Shelby County board member Jeff Warren to oppose the newest Norris-Todd bill.

The Warren motion was quickly supported by David Testerman (pictured here) of the Hamilton County board (Chattanooga).

David Testerman of Chattanooga
  • JB
  • David Testerman of Chattanooga

Testerman agreed that the municipal-schools bill would undermine the integrity of unified county systems.
“Many of the things they are suggesting are the very things that would undermine the success you build, not only in Chattanooga but Nashville Metro also. You’re looking at two models that work,” said Testerman, and a Board member from Davidson County (Nashville) was quick to support Testerman, noting further that the trend in Tennessee had been to reduce the number of school districts, not enlarge them.

Indya Kincannon of the Knox County board weighed in similarly:

But, just as the Warren motion seemed about to carry, another member of the Shelby board, Kevin Woods, who represents an area spanning Memphis and its outer suburbs, noted that there was division of opinion in Shelby County and was successful in getting CLASS to defer stating an opinion until the Shelby board could meet and formulate its own.

Among other bills drawing negative attention from CLASS members were any and all measures enabling continuation of publicly funded virtual schooling. Members also approved a bill. SB798/HB113 (Beavers/Pody) revoking what many members had not realized was an existing ability by the state Education Commissioner to waive statutes having to do with charter schools and “cooperative innovative high school programs.”

They were advised by Robert Gowan and Elizabeth Merkel of Southern Strategies, which moderated the session, that the administration would probably see to the scuttling of that measure.

Here is Amy Frogge of Davidson County seeking joint action to oppose state-authorizer bill for charter schools:

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Does the Newest Charter School Bill 'Authorize' a Slippery Slope?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 21, 2013 at 10:56 PM

Sometime this year, if HB702/SB830 gets past the Tennessee General Assembly and is signed by the governor, local school boards can be cut out of the approval process for new charter schools altogether. And they'll have to pay for the privilege! This week's Flyer editorial explains.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rep. Steve Cohen Tells His Secret: The Lovely Young Lady is His Daughter!

Catching flak from political adversaries for some back-and-forth tweets, the Memphis congressman opens up on the surprising facts of a relationship made public only this week.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 7:07 PM

Victoria Brink, daughter of Steve Cohen
  • Victoria Brink, tweet partner -- and daughter -- of Steve Cohen
The term “breaking news” was made for a situation like this.

The world knew, as of Wednesday night, that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen had been tweeting a lovely young women on his government-paid Twitter account and then deleting the tweets.

The Tennessee Republican Party (most zealous of those who jumped on an apparent political opportunity) put out emailed broadsides denouncing Cohen as “the Weiner of Tennessee” (not meaning Memphis GOP activist Arnold Weiner but former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, who was famously Instagramming pics of his privates to assorted young females last year).

None of this could have prepared most of us for the ultimate Cohen bombshell, delivered Thursday to local TV stations and almost certain to be a news item everywhere as news-gatherers in the nation and around the world catch on.

The young woman was Victoria Brink of Houston, who had tweeted Cohen during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address and was tweeted back twice with endearing messages from the congressman, ending with the initialed phrase “ilu” (for “I love you.”)

Brink’s bikini-clad visage was then featured hither and thither in the blogosphere. But the conclusion everybody jumped to was way, way off.

Steve Cohen, a perennial bachelor (though he has squired many a handsome lady) is a father, and the 24-year-old Brink is his daughter. As Cohen explained it Thursday evening on local TV, he had known for three years, and his daughter had known for four, that the two of them were father/daughter.

And, of course, Miss Brink's mother, with whom Cohen, as he said Thursday, had been "involved" all those years ago, knew.

The vital person who had not known, and was only informed Thursday by Miss Brink, in the wake of all the news reports, was her father of record. The fact of this being a secret from him during Victoria's upbringing is perhaps understandable. (In his TV interviews on Thursday Cohen paid an evidently sincere tribute to the presumed father — actually, it would seem, a step-father — for taking “good care” of his daughter during her formative years.)

There is more to tell about this tale, and we’ll tell it when it becomes possible. Meanwhile, we congratulate the proud papa (who intends to spend some joyous and out-in-the-open time with his daughter), and we say “shame on you” to those who, for political reasons, tried to escalate this story, an inspirational one if it’s anything at all, into a scandal.

As one of our more perspicacious Flyer folks says, “I smell Lifetime movie.” It turns out that Victoria’s mother is one Cynthia White Sinatra, a prominent Texas defense attorney, whose last name is owed to her onetime marriage to Frank Sinatra Jr. No word yet as to the relationship of the songbird’s son to the congressman’s daughter.

And, btw, Lifetime isn’t the half of it. HBO, Showtime, and God knows who else will want in on this one.

Could there have been a better Valentine's Day story than this?

Again, more when and as we know it.

UPDATE:More about the mother, from online biographical sources: Cynthia White Sinatra, a native of Newgulf, Texas, is a lawyer of some note, having represented various war-crimes defendants after the carnage in post-breakup Yugoslavia.

She has a distinguished vita, both as attorney and as writer, having authored numerous articles and lectured extensively on constitutional law. She also has worked in the campaigns and offices of various political figures in Texas, and she waged a congressional campaign against perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul in Texas in 2006.,

Sinatra has three daughters, of whom Victoria Brink is the youngest.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Part Two: The Suburban Protest Goes Before the Commission

Hoover and Roland press the case; Bunker motion to drop anti-MSD lawsuit fails of a hearing but will make next agenda.

Posted By on Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 11:50 PM

VIDEO; Hoover, Roland, and Bunker at Monday's Commission meeting.

There was a Part Two to the suburban plea for an end to the Commission’s lawsuit against the creation of municipal school districts on Monday, and it took place before the Shelby County Commission itself at the heel of the Commission’s regular meeting.

After a suburban resident or two had addressed the county legislative body, Ken Hoover, chief spokesperson at the earlier press conference in the lobby of the county building, came to the dock and presented a distilled version of what he had already spoken to at the press conference.

Not without a full dose of I-told-you-so and a taste or two of irony, Hoover focused on the loss, implicit in the proposed Unified School District budget, of 443 positions to the suburban schools — and, even as amended in a revised budget prospectus due Tuesday, of no less than 377.

His remarks to the Commission were followed by a mini-philippic from Commissioner Terry Roland, who placed the blame for the ongoing litigation — and, by implication, for the seemingly insoluble budget crunch of the Unified System — on the County Commission itself, for presuming to take charge of the merger process and establish a structure for it.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, a onetime member of the old Shelby County Schools board, continued along lines set by his two predecessors, but he concluded with his announcement of “a resolution directing …our attorney, Leo Bearman, to take all measures necessary to withdraw the County Commission’s lawsuit opposing the creation of municipal schools.”

To be voted on at Monday’s meeting required a suspension of the rules, which predictably failed, given the Commission’s 8-5 balance of power favoring merger proponents. But Bunker will have a chance to add his resolution to the next Commission agenda, two weeks hence. And it will no doubt be debated in committee on Wednesday, February 20.

Meanwhile, Roland, who apparently made a pilgrimage to Nashville last week, and other suburban advocates insist that, despite the reluctance of last year’s General Assembly to pass legislation opening the way to new municipal school districts statewide, this year’s legislature will be a different story.

All that is certain is that there will be a Unified School District in 2013-14 that includes the whole of Shelby County. How it gets paid for and what comes after that are questions not yet answered.

Suburban Group to County Commission: 'Drop Anti-MSD Lawsuit'

Pin case on prohibitive deficit projections for Unified Disrict; problem would not exist for separate suburban districts, they say.

Posted By on Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 3:29 PM

Spokespersons for the movement to establish separate municipal school systems in Shelby County held a press conference Tuesday in the Vasco Smith county building, urging an end to the Shelby County Commission's ongoing lawsuit against potential MSDs.

Pinning their case on the recently publicized fiscal shortfalls predicted for the Unifed School District, they distributed materials suggesting that such shortfalls -- and cuts in school personnel and programs -- could be avoided if the forthcoming city/county school merger were aborted.

In a ruling last year, U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays declared unconstitutional 2012 legislation in the General Assembly that would have enabled the fast-track establishment of separate suburban school districts. What remains to be adjudicated is the final clause of the 2011 Norris-Todd Act, which permits attempts to create such districts after August 2013.

As principal spokesman Ken Hoover argued it at the press conference, the proposed municipal school districts in the suburbs would be adequately financed by taxes already voted by residents of the suburbs, whereas the soon-to-be Unified District, with predicted deficits in the neighborhood of $90 million or higher, is faced with insuperable obstacles in paying for its services, thereby short-changing parents in the suburbs as well as those in the former Memphis City Schools.

Here, the suburban spokespersons, backed by a group including suburban members of the County Commission, speak for themselves:

One response, from County Commissioner Sidney Chism, came quickly, and it was a No:

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Stitch in Time: State Rep. Curry Todd Jailed in Jackson, TN

Hint: It had to do with a DUI offense, but it may not be what you think.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 12:54 PM

Todds 2011 booking photo in  Nashville
  • Todd's 2011 booking photo in Nashville
Acting on a tip that state Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville had logged time for DUI last weekend in Madison County, we checked: Indeed, he had. Todd was incarcerated from Thursday, January 31, to Saturday, February 2, at the Madison County Penal Farm.

Since Rep. Todd was, rather famously, convicted last year of a DUI in Nashville, this circumstance had us checking into whatever dire fate might await him, as the perpetrator of what looked to be a second offense. It’s more complicated, but in a nutshell, a second DUI conviction is pretty nasty — causing a mandatory revocation of one’s driver’s license for two years, a stiff fine, and the likelihood of anywhere from 45 days to almost a year in jail.

That’s the bad news. The good news for the Republican legislator, co-author of several controversial school bills affecting Shelby County, is that none of it applied. His 48-hour stay at the Madison County Penal Farm was, in fact, the time he was obliged to serve as a result of last year’s conviction in Nashville — the one and only on his record.

The change of venue and place on the calendar were at Todd’s request, and it was all worked out between the court and law-enforcement authorities of Davidson and Madison counties, explained Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork.

“That sort of thing happens all the time,” said Woolfork, who described Todd’s time at the penal farm as uneventful. What did he do there? “Oh, he tore up uniforms,” said Woolfork, who went on to elucidate that the Sheriff’s Department was in the process of revamping the uniforms of its officers and that Todd labored away at the redesign of several.

That meant, among other things, removing the chevrons from one place on a sleeve and re-stitching them somewhere else.

And why did Rep. Todd choose Madison County as the place of his incarceration? “Oh, probably because he heard what a great sheriff I was,” Woolfork said.

Or it may have been because Jackson is a place on the map between Nashville and Memphis, both the latter places housing ample numbers of inquisitive media people.

In any case, Todd was quickly free to go.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

John Ryder Named General Counsel of RNC

Memphis lawyer who guided national Republican redistricting efforts after 2010 census earns another GOP feather.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 12:18 PM

John Ryder, the Memphis lawyer and national Republican committeeman from Tennessee who chaired the GOP’s national reapportionment efforts after the 2010 census, has got another big-time feather in his cap.

Ryder has just been announced as general counsel of the Republican National Committee by RNC chairman Reince Priebus.

Priebus made the following statement on Thursday:

“I am delighted to announce that I have appointed John Ryder as the new General Counsel of the RNC. I am confident that John’s legal expertise and political experience make him the ideal choice. His understanding of the inner workings of the Committee from his tenure as an RNC Committeeman and a delegate will be an invaluable asset in providing the RNC with guidance and leadership as we move ahead. I look forward to working with John as we continue to assemble the resources needed to be victorious in 2013, 2014, 2016 and beyond.”

In addition to his recent redistricting efforts, Ryder, who has held his national committeeman post from 1996 to the present, with a four-year break from 2004 to 2008, also served as schedule chairman for RNC presidential nominations at his party’s 2012 convention in Tampa.

And in a largely unpublicized effort, he was integrally involved in attempts to resolve differences between the GOP party platform committee and delegates loyal to libertarian Ron Paul.

He was co-chairman of the Southern Region and director of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, held in Memphis in 2006. He is vice President for Judicial Affairs for the Republican National Lawyers Association and serves as Senior Advisor to the Memphis Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society.

Ryder is a member of the Harris, Shelton, Hanover & Walsh law firm and has chaired or served on the boards of numerous civic organizations in Memphis.

Yet More Ophelia Ford: Just a Pistol-Packin' 25-Year-Old. Who Knew?

VIDEO:: Memphis' best-known state Senator weighs in on the legislature's new gun bill. Just watch. Seeing is believing. (New glitch-free version.)

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 6:02 AM

Here is state Senator Ford throwing in her two cents on the legislature's latest version of a guns-in-parking-lot bill. This clip begins with a Chamber of Commerce rep opposing the bill, then comes Ophelia, and then comes the vote. Be patient; the payoff is even better in context.

Now, whatever else you're thinking, do note for the record that , when it came time to vote, Senator Ford was the ONLY member of the Judiciary Committee not to vote Aye on this new gun bill. She abstained. Everybody else fell in line.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Luttrell: County’s Glass “Half Full,” But More Money Needed

Mayor predicts property tax hike of “9 to 10” percent; notes school estimates suggest 30 percent.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 at 2:34 PM

Luttrell at Kiwanis
  • jb
  • Luttrell at Kiwanis
The Shelby County property tax rate is probably going to go up by “9 or 10 percent,” according to County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who told members of the Kiwanis Club and guests Wednesday that the actual needs of county government, taking at face value the Unified School Board's estimates of needed funding, could require an increase of up to 30 percent.

That latter sum was, however, out of the question, he said. As Luttrell pointed out, any increase larger than 10 percent requires a super-majority of 9 votes on the County Commission, and “there aren’t going to be 9 votes” for an increase that high.

The School Board has asked for an additional $80 to $90 million in order to create a "world class" school system, Luttrell said.

He acknowledged that the ongoing merger of formerly separate city and county school systems will indeed require more funding — much of it to pay for the substitution of Shelby County deputies for City of Memphis police to serve as the unified system’s security officers.

But the mayor made it clear he thought the Unified Board had the duty to be realistic in making more budget cuts than those already indicated and to exercise “due diligence,” as other taxpayer-funded public agencies have had to. He said he would be meeting with acting system superintendent John Aitken and other school officials later this week to underscore that message.

School issues constituted only part of the county’s additional burden, as Luttrell saw it. He pointed out that a new agreement reached by the county administration with the Department of Justice over DO-mandated reforms of Juvenile Court would cost another $5 million to implement.

(The mayor did not touch upon it in his remarks, but the County Commission has raised questions about their exclusion from negotiations in reaching this agreement and has challenged. it; for that and other reasons, commissioners have begun the process of hiring a governmental lobbyist to represent the interests of the Commission.)

Another $5 million will be needed to compensate for the fact that property appraisals in Shelby County are expected to decrease by an average of 5 to 10 percent, Luttrell said.

For all the financial problems bearing down on Shelby County, Luttrell characterized the county’s status as a case of the glass being “half full.” He praised county operations ranging from those of the Health Department, the Office of Sustainability, and the EDGE board to the county’s participation in “last chance scholarships” of the Tennessee Achievers program.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Council Changes Names of Forrest Park, Confederate Park, and Jefferson Davis Park

Dramatic action follows news of a legislative filing in Nashville that would have prevented name changes; Council saw bill as threat -- one member calling it a "war of aggression by our northern neighbor in Nashville."

Posted By on Tue, Feb 5, 2013 at 8:37 PM

The emotions of debate on the name-change resolution show on the faces of Bill Boyd, Lee Harris, and Myron Lowery.
  • JB
  • The emotions of debate on the name-change resolution show on the faces of Bill Boyd, Lee Harris, and Myron Lowery.

Galvanized into action by a bill filed in the Tennessee General Assembly but not yet acted upon, the City Council voted Tuesday to change the names of three downtown city parks that had been named in honor of the old Confederacy or for Confederate figures.

By a vote of 9 ayes against 3 abstentions, the Council changed the name of Forrest Park (which is managed by UTCHS) to Health Sciences Park; Confederate Park to Memphis Park; and Jefferson Davis Park to Mississippi River Park.

The action, taken toward the close of the Council’s afternoon public session, came on a resolution that consolidated drafts by Councilman Lee Harris and Council attorney Allan Wade, and it followed a stormy morning meeting of the Council’s Parks Committee, at which Council members had reacted to news of HB553 by state Rep. Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads and state Senator Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro.

That bill, which had just been filed, declared that “[n]o statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, or plaque which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of…” the bill then names a seemingly complete list of America’s wars, including the Civil War “… located on public property, may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed."

Similarly, the bill would prohibit name changes to any "statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, plaque, historic flag display,school, street, bridge,building, park preserve,or reserve which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of, any historical military figure,historical military event, military organization, or military unit" on public property.

A consensus of defiance apparently formed between the committee meeting and the afternoon public session similar to that expressed by the Council in February 2010 in response to maneuvering in Nashville related to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter.

Council members united around the Harris-Wade resolution, having reacted to the McDaniel-Ketron bill as if it were a threat to local sovereignty and an imminent one at that.

Councilman Shea Flinn referred to it as "the ironic war of aggression from our northern neighbor in Nashville," and Council member Janis Fullilove, who pointedly noted the Republican sponsorship of the bill, called it a "snake" needing its "head cut off." Councilman Harold Collins said, "I don't care if the name is Nathan Bedford Forrest. He's a dead man. We need to be focused on the living....but we will never let the legislature in Nashville control what we in Memphis will do for ourselves."

When the vote was taken on an immediate name change of the three downtown parks, only three Council members — Jim Strickland, Kemp Conrad, and Bill Morrison — demurred, choosing to abstain, though, rather than voting no.

Just previous to the vote on the name change, the Council had passed unanimously a resolution by Strickland creating a multi-disciplinary committee to study the issue of names for the three parks. That committee is to be composed of “two members of the Council, two university professor, an NAACP rep, a member of the Shelby County Historical Commission and the Parks Director or designee, “ and it will meet as planned, even though the issue it was created for has at least temporarily been resolved.

Both Strickland and Flinn, a vigorous proponent of the Council resolution, agreed that, formally at least, the changes were only temporary and had been made so as to make any legislative action on the McDaniel-Ketron bill moot.

The two Councilmen opined, however, that the parks were unlikely to revert to their former names. That conclusion was also reached by Wade and Harris, who reckoned such a chance as non-existent.

Flinn, who served a brief appointed term as a state Senator, was asked if the Council’s action might be seen as hasty, inasmuch as the filing of a bill in Nashville, even one more mainstream than the McDaniel-Ketron bill, normally is followed by assignment to committees in either house. Then come several rounds of debate both in committee and on the floors of the two chambers before it might come to a vote weeks or months later. And that’s before the governor chooses to sign it or not.

“That’s how it’s done until it’s not,” Flinn answered.

Harris was frank to acknowledge that he had prepared a draft of his resolution weeks ago, before he or anyone else had any news of a bill in Nashville that might impinge on the renewed controversy regarding parks that commemorate aspects of the Confederacy. “It worked out just fine for us,” he said of the effect caused by the bill in committee. “This is the New South,” he said exultantly.

The parks controversy, which had focused largely on Forrest Park, site of a statue of General Nathan Forrest as well as the gravesites of Forrest and his wife, erupted again recently after an eight-year equilibrium. There had been serious controversy over Forrest Park in 2005 — stemming from the fact that Forrest, a bona fide military hero, had been a slave trader before the Civil War, had been accused of massacring black Union troops during the war, and founded the Ku Klux Klan afterward.

The then Center City Commission passed a resolution calling for renaming the park, but the City Council failed to act on it at the time.

Nothing much had happened to re-open the matter until recently, when Lee Millar, a member of both the Tennessee Historical Commission and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, organized a fund-raising campaign that netted upwards of $10,000, which went toward erecting a bold granite marker on the Union Avenue side of the downtown park, saying “FORREST PARK” in caps.

Millar would later furnish a 2011 letter from then city parks director Cindy Buchanan seemingly approving his plans to create such a marker, which was embedded in the park in late spring of 2012. When the Flyer asked about the marker in early December, city CAO George Little maintained that there no records of an official approval, and he would hold to that position even after the surfacing of Buchanan’s letter, which he and various other city and civic officials would later declare insufficient to establish compliance with protocol.

Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey, a leading critic of the Forrest connection during the 2005 discussions, had complained about the new marker in October, but nothing much had happened until Little was questioned about the matter in December. He said then that the city’s two options were to leave things as they were or to uproot the marker. Ultimately he decided on the latter course, and Millar and others responded indignantly.

Critics of the idea of commemorating Forrest were re-animated as well, and the net effect of the marker affair was to generate new calls for changing the function of Forrest Park, as well as the two others. Several Council members came up with solutions, like Myron Lowery’s suggestion that the park have a dual dedication, to Forrest and to Ida B. Wells, an early Memphis civil rights icon.

Then came Tuesday’s action. Wade says that Millar confided to him during the morning committee session that he had contacted Rep. McDaniel, advocating something like the bill that was introduced, as a protective measure.

If so, Millar, despite his obvious unhappiness with the result, had for the second time within a year played a major role in bringing it about.


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